Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Braiden Rex-Johnson Visits "Spritely" Spur

Spur's Historic Interior. Photo by Braiden Rex-Johnson

Best-selling cookbook author and food/wine expert and journalist, Braiden Rex-Johnson, stopped by Spur a few times and has written about it on her Northwest Wining & Dining Blog. She gives a special shout-out to our fab server Bree, describes Spur's salads as "stellar", and calls us a welcome addition to the neighborhood.

Aw shucks.

To hear about her favorite plates, read the full review dated September 23 here:

Thanks Braiden.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Well Known San Diego Restaurant Reviewer Rates Spur

"You gotta love the spunk, the self-confidence, the smart-aleck cleverness of a menu that bills Buffalo Chicken Wings as Free-Range Chicken Confit." - Clancy

It's been years since we last talked to Maureen Clancy, the former restaurant critic of the San Diego Union Tribune. What a surprise to hear from her this week following a visit she made to Spur with her Seattle-based son. Her review? What can we say. Just go straight to Maureen's "Matters of Taste" blog now and read it:

Thanks Maureen! We can't wait to see you in Seattle again.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Jonathan Kaufman of the Seattle Weekly "Fell in Love" with Spur

Spur Is Trying Awfully Hard
Which is why it’s great.

By Jonathan Kauffman. Published: September 10, 2008

Photo by Steven Miller for the Seattle Weekly.
Photo Caption: Who knows what culinary surprises lurk herein?

Half of Seattle will hate Spur on first sight. I can just read the City-search rants right now: "This is the most pretentious place I've ever been to," offended diners will write, forgetting that they once said the same thing about Lampreia, Marco's Supper Club, and probably the Dahlia Lounge before that. "The bathrooms have pony-skin mirrors, fer Chrissakes. Plus I couldn't understand half the menu," they'll harrumph, in alternately capitalized words to demonstrate their harrumphitude. "I took one look and walked out."

O suspicious diners, I am not one of you. In fact, let me tell you about one of the first moments I fell in love with a restaurant that tries hard—and just hard enough: the moment my friend ordered a Manhattan.

"What kind of bourbon would you like?" asked the waitress. Prodded for a recommendation, she suggested Bulleit, an artisanally produced bourbon from Kentucky. Then she pried further: "How would you like it? Regular, dry, perfect?" My friend was taken aback by the question. Waiters never offer these kinds of variations on a Manhattan. Was she just trying to impress us with her precision? No, the sincere look said that this was something that mattered to her, and, she was assuming, to him as well.

The second moment I fell in love with Spur: The arrival of my first dish. Spur's menu lists about a dozen items, mostly small plates in the $8–$14 range as well as a $13 burger and two $24 entrées. It's in keeping with Brian McCracken and Dana Tough's declaration that Spur is a New American gastropub, a place where you're there to drink as well as dine. My friends and I had ordered four or five plates, then tacked on a beet salad with pistachios and goat-cheese mousse to make sure we ate enough vegetables. Beet salad with goat cheese is the great cliché of the past half-century, a pairing so common that even the great versions taste lazy. But there was nothing lazy about the plate that arrived, my first glimpse of McCracken and Tough's mad skills: a neat row of evenly sliced wedges of roasted chiogga beets, coated in chopped pistachio nuts, perfectly aligned on an even white rope of mousse, punctuated with a pile of baby arugula leaves, and topped with a precariously balanced savory tuile cookie. (Again, if the words tuile and baby arugula set you off, chances are good Spur will annoy you.) Even more impressive: The salad tasted fantastic, a perfect calibration of nutty-sugary-earthy-tart-goaty-peppery.

I had a holy-shit response to much of Spur's food, both in terms of presentation and flavors. McCracken, the owner, met up with Tough working under Maria Hines at Earth & Ocean, and the two have worked in a number of Seattle restaurants. But here they're looking to New York and Spain as well as local farms and waters for inspiration, and trying food that Tough calls "risky." They keep the menu small, they play hard, and they're not afraid of diving into trends.
Which is why it's perfect that Spur is just off design-friendly Second Avenue, in the old Mistral space. The restaurant only seemed to be closed for the flicker of an eyelid, but in that time the owners stripped away all Mistral's gauzy formality and replaced it with West Elm Western. They painted the walls a deep, manly gray, and project black-and-white stills of the West (Wild and New) in a giant framed screen. Industrial lights overhead look like they were built to stage cage fights for hamsters inside. The owners populated the room with dark wood tables of varying heights; some have a just-hewn quality underneath the varnish. A quarter of the dining room is taken up by the bar, with its impressive roster of microdistillery spirits and other arcana. There's a self-conscious urbanity to the decor, but it's no Veil (which is so precious that even I feel uncomfortable).

And like Shannon Galusha at Veil, McCracken and Tough aren't afraid to play with foams, gels, and powders. Unlike at Veil, a meal at Spur, including a couple of glasses, will set you back only $50. In general, there's a significant A.F.—asshole factor—associated with all these novelties. Thank Marcel Vigneron, the Top Chef contestant who introduced most of America to the wonders of "molecular gastronomy," a concept that gets assholier the more I think about it. But in Spur's casual environment, the calcium lactate gluconate is slipped in: Scattered among a "summer vegetable salad" with the skinniest of haricots verts, quarters of baby patty-pan squash, microgreens, peeled cherry tomatoes, snapdragon flowers, and parmesan shavings was a vegetable I couldn't identify. Round and shiny, with a slight teardrop shape, the pale-yellow ball seemed soft to the touch when I poked it with a fork. Was it a ground cherry? A roasted baby pepper? I put the ball in my mouth, where it popped, flooding my mouth with the aroma of sweet corn. (McCracken later told me he turns a sweet-corn cream into these gel-enclosed drops using a process called "reverse spherification.")

Most of the big cities across the nation now support a handful of restaurants specializing in molecular gastronomy, but they usually amp up the A.F. with an arch theatricality, whereas Spur's chefs and servers seem more focused on the quality of their ingredients. When the trout salad arrived, for instance, our waiter identified the elements of the dish with little fanfare—here's the pan-seared fillet, these greens are mizuna mixed with faro (whole spelt grains) and almonds, and oh, that's an almond foam.

Every dish on the menu impressed me, not just because of the chefs' techniques but for the results they produced. Crackly crostini were topped with house-made mascarpone cheese, pink pickled shallots, and chunks of "smoked salmon," basically sashimi with smoke blown over its surface long enough to scent the tender pink flesh. Butterfish poached sous vide (vacuum-packed in a low-temp water bath), served with morels and peas, had the most amazing flake to it, moist and satiny. There was a foie ice cream, with just the faintest whiff of duck-liver fat, set on top of powdered pistachios blended with a little salt, as well as a buttery pistachio financier (ground-nut cake) and a smear of tangy elderflower syrup; adding the savory to the sweet only enhanced its richness. I'd need double my normal space to write up each of the dozen items. Instead I'll just say this re the pork-belly sliders: Order them.

There were a few dings—including with the servers. Having performed marvelously during my first meal, they were overwhelmed by two loud business parties on my second visit and always arrived five minutes after we'd started craning our necks to look for them. It's clearly time to hire a busser, at least. But overall, I had two inventive meals with very few flaws.

As for you who distrust ambition or anything that reminds you that Seattle is bigger than your neighborhood association, you'll probably be outraged by the hard tables, the $100 ties on the crowd around the bar, the oddly shaped plates, and David Nelson's $12 cocktails (personally, I'd recommend the Foreigner). Feel free to come up with any number of additional reasons to turn your back on Spur. Because then I might get a table.

Price Check

Beets $9

Pork-belly sliders $12

Salmon crostini $9

Vegetable salad $9

Black cod $24

Chocolate torchon $7

Foreigner cocktail $12

Back on the Island: Chef Brian McCracken's Neighborhood Roots

Photo special to the MI Reporter.

Seattle's Mercer Island Reporter newspaper visited Spur recently. Having grown-up on the Island, Brian was featured in the paper's Lifestyle pages with recipes, photos and more. Eileen Mintz calls Spur's menu "incredibly innovative" and writes that her palate was "wowed". To see the whole story read here:

Thanks for visiting us, Eileen.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

PI critic raves about many Spur dishes and drinks. Read it:

Spur is a stylish ride of drinks and dishes


Spur Gastropub isn't exactly a pub. It's more a stylish cocktail lounge serving signature drinks and high-concept eats.

That was never more clear than when the server carded my kid. The place is 21-and-over, he very diplomatically explained. The sign says so on the door (though not on the Web site, which I checked before coming in).

I guess I just assumed that like Seattle's other gastropub -- the crazy-busy Quinn's on Capitol Hill -- it was an all-ages venue, at least until a certain hour. My mistake.

As I looked around the room, it made perfect sense, though. The crowd was a mix of Belltown cuties getting their drink on, couples sharing small plates, large parties mixing it up after work. The place has a very grown-up vibe.

The Spotted Pig in New York gets a lot of credit for launching the gastropub concept in this country, but this culinary revolution began at The Eagle in London, where pub grub was elevated to upscale dining heights. (Not to belabor the point, but both Spotted Pig and The Eagle allow minors.)

A more recent, and most welcome development has been the arrival of the nouveau speak-easy. These are exclusive venues with unlisted numbers -- again, mostly in New York. I'm glad Spur didn't go that direction because it's too good to be kept a secret.

Spur is a collaboration of chefs Brian McCracken and Dana Tough, who have turned the former Mistral into a sophisticated setting with a Western accent. Don't think "Urban Cowboy." The accent is subtle -- more like Brad Pitt in "A River Runs Through It" than John Travolta in a 10-gallon hat. To make the point, Spur's long, tall banquette looks vaguely like a saddle and an ongoing slideshow features black-and-white images of chickens and tractors and old-time Seattle. John Wayne movies play on a TV above the bar.

What do you say we belly up to that bar, partner? It's manned by the congenial David Nelson, who has created a long list of signature cocktails. A few are updates of old-fashioned favorites. I just loved the West Coast Pimm's, a refreshing combination of Pimm's No. 1 (a gin-based liquor infused with spices and fruit flavors), lemon, cuke, mint, basil and a splash of ginger ale. Why, that's practically a health food bev.

Much of the rest of the list sounded too sweet, but Nelson also did a fine job shaking up a gin gimlet even Philip Marlowe would have to admire. A resounding tang came from fresh-squeezed lime juice -- I was offered the choice between fresh and sticky-sweet Rose's -- mixing it up with the decent house gin, Gordon's. It was shaken and served up in a martini glass, the tiniest shards of ice floating on top. Very nice.

You know what would go great with that? An order of pork rinds. In a city that can't seem to get its fill of pork belly, the chicheron is the next logical obsession. Spur's magnificent rendering of this fried pork skin sits on top of a pile of mussels and clams simmered in a fantastic slightly spicy, saffron-y broth. Drop a piece of the golden, crunchy chicheron into the broth and it becomes the best baconlike cracker you've ever tasted. I am afraid I made a pig out of myself doing just that.

Of course, there's pork belly, too. The fatty little squares were sandwiched between a pillowy soft brioche to create a pair of sliders. The smoked orange marmalade came just to the brink of overshadowing the pork, but it managed to stay in balance.

The chef duo certainly isn't timid about seasoning, which is great. Except when it goes one toke over the line. The absolutely gorgeous presentation of a pan-seared trout -- a mustard foam lapping at the filet -- wasn't the perfect 10 it could have been because it was a shade too salty. And the accompanying mizuna was overdressed in vinaigrette that was out of balance -- too acidic.

I had no complaints about the exceptionally tender flat-iron steak and the ultrabuttery butterfish, also known as black cod. Both those showstoppers were cooked sous-vide, the food vacuum-sealed and simmered at a very low temperature. This results in incredibly concentrated flavor and a texture that's beyond tender. It barely requires chewing.

Those two dishes are the most entreelike offering on the fairly short menu. And, at $24 for a smallish portion, some might find them too precious. But they were practically flawless, the steak sliced and laid out like a beefy fan, a dollop of shallot marmalade on top. The fried potato on the side was the size of a hockey puck and that sucker went straight into the net, instantly making my Top 10 spud dishes of all time. I loved it because it was like a cross between mashed potatoes and French fries, like an outsize croquette.

The butterfish was perched on a pool of green, English peas and sauteed morels. Simple, elegant, but the lack of a starch left me wanting more. A basket of bread might have filled the void, but they don't serve bread at Spur. (I wonder what The Duke would make of that.)

Wait a minute. I take that back. The buns that hold the terrific bison burger are as good as the brioche used to showcase the pork belly sliders. The slightly gamey -- but like duck and lamb, gamey in a good way -- bison burger is cooked medium rare, the server said. Is that OK? she wondered. (Spur's staff was very solicitous; I was so impressed how servers worked as a polished team, especially when greeting diners at the door. Even the buser jumped in to seat people.) In reality, the burger was more along the lines of a medium, which worked even better. A thick slice of heirloom tomato added to the glorious, juicy mess of a sandwich. The pile of shoestring potatoes on the side provided a crunchy counterpoint to the savory burger in the soft bun.

During my last two meals, I was happy to see the kitchen had gotten over the idea of sending out dishes piecemeal. The first time I wandered in, our "two top" was served one salad -- a nicely dressed tangle of heirloom lettuce topped with ricotta salata -- and, later, a baby beets salad accompanied by a squiggle of creamy chevre, arugula and a pistachio wafer on top. I had some doubts about a kitchen that couldn't even get two salads out at the same time. Maybe they were just trying to build drama.

If you're in the mood for something sweet, Spur definitely delivers drama.

The bar offers a daily dessert cocktail. Nearly every table sporting a post-savory treat was ogling the pistachio financier, a tea cake paired with a slightly salty foie ice cream. I preferred the summer fruit tartlet, the beautiful berries at their sweet peak. Both were absolutely gorgeous. The local cheese plate also is impeccably presented.

I liked most everything I tried at Spur -- the lone disappointment was a tarted-up take on Buffalo wings the menu called chicken confit, which, unlike the appendages from upstate New York, lacked any kind of zing. But for this gastro-minded watering hole to truly succeed, the kitchen has to change things more often. (And when they update the menu, I sincerely hope McCracken and Tough add a vegetarian option beyond the salads.)

The gastropub's Web site promises updates, but the menu hasn't changed since it opened in early July. Surely, those creative wheels will start turning as Spur goes from a loping canter to a full-out gallop. I have no doubt this culinary duo can take this savory saloon to the next level.